The Usual Rule Is Hands Off, But DAM's Tactile Tables Wants Everyone To 'See' Visual Art

Jun 29, 2016

Blind since birth, there’s nothing worse for 8-year-old Chloe Poston than being at a museum where all the signs say ‘Do Not Touch.’

A curious child, Poston asks lots of questions and wants to be a doctor someday. The best way for her to learn is hands on -- an opportunity the Denver Art Museum recently gave her. The Lakewood third-grader got to walk right past those ‘Do not touch’ signs and actually handle some of the art. Well, sort of.

Poston is taking part in the DAM’s Tactile Tables program. Patrons, particularly those who are vision impaired, are allowed to handle replicas of the art on display in an effort to bring them a better art experience. For Poston, it even meant putting that curiosity to good use as she handled replicas of ancient tea pots that were part of the museum’s Samurai exhibit.

“When I feel in here, I don’t feel a hole where (the tea) could go through,” she explains to the docent leading the table.

Together they discover that all but one of the tea pots on the table are without a hole connecting the pot to the spout. It’s those types of experiences that give the vision impaired a better connection to the art on the walls and behind thick panes of glass.

Tactile Tables offer reproductions of the exhibitions that are typically off-limits to touching - like this samurai suit of armor - for the visually impaired to handle.
Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC

“We really want our art museum to be available to people with all different abilities,” said Fran Cosby, a retired social worker turned docent who helps with the museum’s access programs, including Tactile Tables.

Alongside replicas of artworks, you’ll find magnifiers for patrons who have partial sight as well as Sensational BlackBoards. The blackboards allow them to draw on one side, and feel what they’ve created on the other. It’s all meant to make visual art accessible to those who are vision impaired.

“I am so excited to be able to have them enjoy the art the way that I am,” said Cosby, as she prepared to lead a group of students from the Colorado Center for the Blind through the tables.

It’s even more important as many of these students rarely get the opportunity to participate in the visual arts. CCB youth program director Brent Batron points out that typically blind participants are left out of art classes.

“We want blind kids to have every opportunity that other kids are able to have,”Batron said. “And art is one of those experiences, just like phys ed, just like music classes, mathematics, and science.”

Unlike those classic schoolroom subjects, the Tactile Tables program isn’t just for children.

Linda Truman suffered two severe strokes several years ago.

“I’m cortically blind so I see everything but there is absolutely no interpretation whatsoever. So I don’t know what it is I’m seeing,” Truman said as she examined a replica of a samurai mask at one of the tables.

Blind artist Linda Truman feels a replica teapot from the Denver Art Museum Tactile Table station at its samurai exhibition.
Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC

The loss was particularly difficult as it ground to a halt the Loveland fiber artist’s career.

“Devastating,” is how she described it, adding, “and it was feeling like I, I wouldn’t be whole again.”

Not only was her ability to create art gone, but so was her ability to enjoy it. Until she heard about the DAM’s Tactile Tables program. Truman can still recall feeling her first art exhibit.

“They had a large painting on the wall - gigantic,” she said. “And then an artist had made a small, miniature version of it. So - they would describe the big one and I could feel it on the little one. It’s - like magical.”

That’s thanks to Denver artist Ann Cunningham, who has dedicated her art to providing a fuller sensory experience, particularly for those who are visually impaired. Cunningham creates most of the pieces for the Tactile Tables program and also designed the Sensational BlackBoards used by the museum.

Editor's Note: This story is part of an ongoing series on people with disabilities and access to the arts. If there's a story you'd like to see us cover, contact Stacy Nick at (970) 350-0817 or stacy.nick@kunc.org